Shirley Denetsosie

Shirley Denetsosie Ketchum Denetsosie - Ute Cradleboards:

With the help of her mother, Shirley Ketchum Denetsosie made her first Ute cradleboard at the time of her first child's birth, a son. Now, thirty years and hundreds of cradleboards later, Shirley makes the cradleboards she sells with as much care as the ones she makes for her grandchildren. And though she knows most of the cradleboards she creates will be displayed rather than used, she hopes they will be treasured as much as those that cradled her own babies.

A resident of the White Mesa Ute Indian Reservation for most of her life, Shirley Denetsosie was born in lgnacio, Colorado, a town named after the great Ute leader lgnacio. Born in the mid 1800's, to the Weeminuche Band, Chief lgnacio was undoubtedly bundled into a cradleboard soon after his birth.

Pictures taken in the 1800's of Ute leaders and their families show large elaborate "papoose boards", over three feet in height. The boards were covered in buckskin and had a wide band of beadwork arched across the front crown. Fringed buckskin decorated the top of the pouch the baby was bundled into, and leather strands laced it up.

The Ute cradle boards are distinguished from those of other tribes by the curved shade above the baby's head, shaped from supple limbs of the Tamarisk bush. This shade could be draped with a cloth to shelter the baby from the weather. Protruding outward, it would also safeguard the baby's head if the cradleboard accidentally fell forward.

Cradle boards were necessary for the nomadic Utes, as they traveled from their winter home to summer camp and back again. They not only allowed the mothers to carry their babies on their backs while walking or riding a horse, the boards could also be propped against a tree, or hung from branch, while the babies were kept safe inside.

Traditionally, the mother sang a specified lullaby while working on her baby's cradleboard. After the baby was born and the umbilical cord healed and dropped off, the mother would place it in a pouch, which she tied it to the cradleboard. This symbolized the child being "tied to home and family". Cradleboards made with white leather are for males; the yellow leather represents a female baby.

Shirley has kept all of these traditions alive. Her cradleboards are very similar to those her forbearers made. She begins with a cut piece of plywood, which has holes drilled in it so that it can be covered with hand tanned buckskin. Shirley gathers Tamarisk from along the San Juan River, with which to fashion the shade. She uses colorful beads to form several striking geometric patterns which she applies in several places on the leather sheath, hand sewing the entire creation. Her children and grandchildren's cradleboards still have their umbilical cords hanging from them.

"The babies feel secure in their cradleboards", Shirley says. "My little granddaughter is walking now, but when she gets sleepy she wants to be in her cradleboard. She climbs in and I strap her up, then she quickly goes to sleep."

Shirley also agrees with the Ute premise that keeping a baby in a cradleboard-in an upright position- strengthens their legs and helps them walk earlier. She says her children walked at about 8 months of age.

One of the few Ute women who create traditional cradle boards, Shirley does not sign her boards, but they are recognizable as hers because of her fine characteristic detail work. It takes her about two weeks of constant effort to form a full size cradleboard. As her fingers fashion her craft, she dreams about her heritage, of the Ute values, and of the babies that grew up to be leaders among their people. She hopes those who buy her cradleboards share in those dreams.

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This site was last updated on September 25, 2020.

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